Saturday, October 15, 2005

Chinky & Co.

A friend visiting from the West Coast last year got really offended as I gave him directions to my house from the hostel at Rosenthaler Platz where he was staying. "Just go out the door, cross the street, and if you see Chinky the Chinaman you know you're on the right side of the street," I told him. He made some odd noises, but when he finally showed up here, he said "Hey, sorry for all of that. But you were right. Chinky the Chinaman."

What I was referring to was this:

Now, if that's not Chinky the Chinaman, I don't know what is. The most annoying part of this is...well, it's hard to say just what the most annoying part of this is. This is an exquisitely-decorated Chinese restaurant, although the food it serves is the usual German Chinese crap. It was also, according to an ad campaign that was all over Berlin last year, assisted in its creation by a Federal initiative to encourage business start-ups. That campaign just used the motif of a tongue with those five characters on it (and any Chinese experts out there, I have a question: are those or aren't those archaic characters? Certainly they're not the ones in common use, are they?).

But what's really annoying is that no one is upset by Chinky. In fact, it's been a lot worse. Four or five years ago, McDonald's went on an ethnic rampage, featuring new sandwiches every ten days or so in various "exotic" combinations. There was an Indian sandwich, a Mexican one, a Greek one, and each one was, of course, advertised by a saturation billboard campaign. Now, of course, a billboard isn't a subtle medium, and you have to get your point across fast, so yeah, the Indian one was advertised with Hindu-like lettering, the Greek with squared-off blue and white letters, the Mexican one with a sombrero. But the Chinese one was done with one-word posters with a little explanatory text below. The first one I saw, right near my house, announced LIESIG! and of course used fake-Chinese type. I reeled when I saw this, because, knowing German, I realized that the word they were using was "riesig," giant. It wasn't until I saw a second one that said RECKA! ("lecker," delicious) that I started getting mad.

Soon after this McDonald's campaign was all over town, I read an article in some left-wing paper here about it, which at least reassured me that I wasn't the only Caucasian who'd gotten offended. They interviewed a woman who was the head of some Chinese-German association, and her response was "It's annoying, but there are bigger issues we have to deal with." That kind of disappointed me; the idea of a bunch of Germans in coolie hats picketing McDonald's had occurred to me, but hey, if Frau Lee wasn't going to get excited, no one else would. Although, on reflection, it seems to me that starting with such "little" issues, you can bring attention to the bigger ones. Well, whatever.

It's undeniable, though, that this sort of racism -- Orientalism, to give it its proper name -- is acceptable here. There's a snack food that comes in "Thailandische süss-scharf" (sweet-hot) flavor, and features a "Thai" on the package wearing a coolie hat, slanty eyes, a pigtail, and those kind of Japanese wooden shoes with the two platforms, the kind that geishas wear. It's an offensive stereotype, but it isn't even a remotely accurate offensive stereotype.

I usually learn my multiculturalism at the table, and the "Asia" restaurants here have had my back up since I arrived. The "Asiapfanne" is a mess of pork and noodles and a couple of vegetables, including bean-sprouts, seasoned with soy sauce, that's ubiquitous at the Asia Imbisses (snack-bars) here, and it's wildly popular: I see people cramming it into their mouths every day. It's of no known nationality, created, like chop suey, by Asians themselves for the society they find themselves in. I'd reckon that the majority of Asia Imbiss owners are ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese, because there was a huge number of Vietnamese who came to the West as refugees around the time of the Vietnam War (thanks to Germany's once-liberal refugee policies) and to the East as "friendly socialist workers," and, just as the Chinese in America invented chop suey, they invented Asiapfanne.

Eventually, they opened restaurants, so people could come in and sit down, but the fare in there was just further variations on Chinapfanne. And when other ethnicities came into the mix, it was no better: I once went clear across town for dinner because I'd found a Vietnamese restaurant, the first I'd seen here. Nothing on the menu -- or on the plate I ordered -- was even remotely Vietnamese. In fact, it was indistinguishable from the "Chinese" food I'd had.

This is still going on: what got me to finally sit down and write this rant was the discovery in my mailbox this morning of yet another take-out menu. This one is from the newly-opened Mai Bistro, and offers "China-Japan-Thai" cooking. Its contents are so horrible that I shudder to re-open it to give examples, but I will. First, in the Chinese section, there are seven varieties of Chinapfanne, plus four more "fried noodle" dishes which are indistinguishable from them. This is followed by fried rice in a number of varieties. Bami Goreng and Nasi Goreng are also listed under noodles and rice, respectively, although they're European Indonesian dishes. Then we're on to the chicken, beef, duck, and shrimp dishes, each with its chop suey, curry, sweet-sour with pineapple, and peanut-sauce variations, not to mention bamboo shoot, carrot and glass-noodle stir-fries. Under Thai, we have our choices of green curry, red curry, fried noodles, and fried glass-noodles, with the same meats as the Chinese stuff. The Japanese menu is truly amazing: Katsu (breaded, fried chicken-breast) with curry, hot, sweet-sour, hot-sour, or "Braten" (which I presume means the nebulous brown MSG-laced Maggi sauce) sauces, or Topia (chicken cubes) done the same way. Then chicken teriyaki, chicken yakitori, fried chicken cubes, chicken chop suey, and chicken "Mai curry." Finally, we have the shrimp, Ebi-Katsu-sticks, it says here, shrimp breaded and fried in oil, with tartar sauce.

I will not be calling them any time soon.

This cultural confusion isn't helped by the fact that the sushi industry here is dominated by the Thais, and the "Thai-Sushi" sign is practically all you see. (There are a few restaurants in the west which cater to Japanese businessmen, including the wonderful Sabu, and here you can get normal donburu and tonkatsu -- things Japanese people actually eat). In fact, the nearest place to my house where I can buy sushi is a restaurant called Südostasien, or South-east Asia. Thai-sushi is cut in factories, placed on waxed paper, and frozen to be delivered to these places. Long gone is the magnificent sushi-joint Mäcky Messer on Mulackstr., where a maniacal German guy from Hamburg made some of the best sushi I've had outside of Japan.

In fact, I've met actual educated intelligent Germans who have argued with me that the predominant starch in Chinese diets is noodles, and that there's really no difference between Chinese and Japanese and Thai food. This confusion goes well beyond the table, too, since they're confused that there's a difference between Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam on the one hand and Indonesia, or China on the other. Worse, they don't see why this exasperates me.

Now, you could argue that this is a culture which hasn't had much first-hand experience with these ethnicities, and I'd argue right back that if we were in a small city like Seelow, hard on the Polish border, it would be one thing, but this is the supposed "World City" of Berlin. And yeah, it's so much easier to deal in stereotypes, and if we but admit it, we can fall into this way of thinking sometimes, and yeah, if I were discussing Amazon Indian tribes, I might make stupid mistakes because I've never really studied them or, needless to say, experienced their culture or known any. I'll even grant you that Laotians haven't made much of an impact on Germany, maybe. (The Vietnamese made enough of an impression that right after I moed here, the German government deported something like 15,000 of them, in an effort, they said, to "cut down on crime." Sure.) But China? Japan?

The fact is, there's a current of lazy racism under German -- and, I'm willing to bet, most European -- culture. My favorite restaurant has a hotel attached to it (two, in fact), and in the window of its office, there's a little sculptural ensemble of happy darkies playing instruments, red lips and all. I guess I cut them slack because I know they're good people and because they've built a former dissident Ossi bar into a lodging and gastronomy empire, but I do wince a bit every time I walk past this little group. And there's no denying that, when I made my first visit here, in 1988, the apartment I stayed in had a box of chocolate-covered domes, with a cookie base, the dome filled with some sort of awful white cream, which were labelled Negerküsse, "nigger-kisses." Nobody I mentioned this to could figure out what I was on about: that's what they'd always been called.

However, when I finally moved here in 1993, I went looking for them in the supermarket. The name had been changed. Now they were Maurenküssen -- "Moors' kisses."

Now, that's progress.


David Adam Edelstein said...

Yow. What a place. I do love the idea of a sushi restaurant named Mack the Knife.

The Chinese characters in the picture are archaic, but from an era often used to signify "history" like people in the US might use Caslon Antique or a blackletter typeface to clumsily signify "ye olde days". I'll pass the picture on to my brother, who can probably tell you what it actually says.

David Adam Edelstein said...

dlwilson is of course right.

The reply back from my brother:

It says "有味道" (you weidao), or "has flavor." I suppose it could be translated as "flavorful" or "delicious."

These are in xiaozhuan, by the way, or maybe dazhuan. Let's put it at early Qin or pre-Qin, circa 220 BCE. Not the sign, of course, but the writing style. You know, just in case there was any doubt.

Anonymous said...

Just as a late addition: in contrast to what the author of this blog post says, this restaurant serves only authentic Chinese mainland dishes. (As speciality, they have a decent Sichuan style hotpot all-you-can-eat offer.)